So, what do you Unitarians actually believe?
by Elias Blum
Of course, there’s no one answer to this question. We maintain a non-creedal religion, because we recognise the importance of individual conscience. We value our liberty of private judgment in matters of religion over conformity to any kind of formal creed or doctrine. We value this liberty, in part, because it is a good antidote to much that is harmful in religion. It protects us against power-trips, fundamentalism, superstition and legalism. We value it, also, because we recognise that truth is complicated, multifaceted, and sometimes even contradictory; only by a free and responsible search, individually and as members of a free community, can we discern worthy truths from falsehood.
However, this liberalism cannot be an end in itself. Without the radically transformative Good News of the gospel, shown to us in the life, Way and teachings of Jesus Christ, it has no critical edge: it has no ability to change, save, rescue, redeem, heal, restore and edify us; no power to bring justice, freedom and peace to our communities and nations. Without a positive affirmation of the Good News at its core, Unitarian Christianity is nothing but a talking shop for the ‘tea and cake’ brigade: pleasant enough, harmless, but also quite irrelevant, and totally unable to play any part in building up the Kingdom of God or bringing succour to a hurting, striving world.
So, in this post, I’m going to show some attempts to capture, in a form of written words, the essence of the Good News – of the gospel, the message, the teaching, the Way – as many Unitarian Christians might understand it.
The ‘Eight Principles of Modern Unitarian Christianity’ – clearly based on the Principles adopted by the Progressive Christian Alliance – is one good, short summary of the core beliefs that a Unitarian Christian might hold:
1. We believe in One God;
2. We have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of the man they call Jesus;
3. We are open to insights from science and reason;
4. We continue to ask ourselves questions and seek a greater understanding of reality and beyond;
5. We recognise the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
6. We realise that how we behave with one another is key to achieving the aim of being a follower Jesus – therefore we strive to love all people, to be forgiving, to always seek to help others, to struggle for a better world for all.
7. We provide all people sanctuary without insisting that they become like us.
8. We continue to form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace, tolerance, justice & freedom among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to all.
Well, that covers the bases. But it’s dry bones. It is, perhaps, more of a constituting statement, providing a set of workable ground-rules for a church, fellowship, or association, than an affirmation of what ‘an approach to God through the life and teachings of the man they call Jesus’ actually means.
David Miano, author of ‘An Explanation of Unitarian Christianity’, has proposed the following ‘Confession of Faith’ on the website of the American Unitarian Conference:
We believe in one God, the Creator and Preserver of all things,
And in Jesus Christ, the one Lord of the Church,
whose teachings and life form the standard of our faith and practice,
And in the Holy Spirit, the influence of God within us;
We believe in the divine element in conscience,
In free will and the responsibility that comes with it,
In the inspiration and sanctity of Scripture,
In the forgiveness of sins,
In God’s universal love for all humankind,
And in the future advancement of the whole human family to holiness and happiness.
This shows, particularly in the connection between holiness and happiness in the last line, some echos of the famous ‘Winchester Profession’ of 1803, that reflected the Universalist heritage of the movement:
Article I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
Article II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
Article III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
A personal favourite of mine is the Covenant developed by Griswold Williams, and widely adopted by Unitarian and Universalist churches in the early 20th century:
Love is the doctrine of this church.
The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer
To dwell together in peace; to seek knowledge in freedom;
To serve humanity in fellowship;
To the end that all souls shall grow together into harmony with the source and meaning of life.
Thus do we covenant with each other and All.
An even more pithy version goes like this:
We believe in:
The Fatherhood of God;
The Brotherhood of Man;
The Leadership of Jesus;
Salvation by Character;
The Progress of Mankind
onward and upward forever.
If all this still seems a bit ‘boosterish’ and ‘happy-clappy’, then Matt Grant’s alternative, proposed in the March 2005 edition of ‘American Unitarian’, takes a more laconic approach:
“We believe that there is One God; we affirm the unity of all creation and take the example and teachings of the human Jesus as our Way in life.”
I can see merit and value in all these statements, affirmations and covenants. All get close to defining what cannot ever be fully defined. None of them, of course, would ever be treated as a ‘doctrinal’ statement. They are pointers on the road, signposts to the reality that is ‘God’, ‘the Spirit’, or ‘Christ’: they cannot bound or confine that reality.
To get to the root what that reality means to me, I have to step outside these neat, organised, well-crafted lists of articles, and speak instead from experience. Rather than trying to recite some sort of pseudo-creed of ‘what Unitarian Christians believe’, I can only offer a testimony of what this one individual has come to understand.
It would go something like this.
The Holy Spirit’s beautiful amazing love – the same mysterious, embracing, challenging ‘Christ-Spirit’ that was in the martyred prophet Jesus of Nazareth and in all the prophets and the saints – is working within us. The spirit is healing, refreshing, restoring, encouraging – bringing joy, peace, forgiveness, hope, love and new life in abundance. This Christ-Spirit is a love that welcomes us as we are yet calls us to grow; this we, filled and animated by that love, may take part in the wonderful task of building what Jesus called a new ‘kingdom’, one where the power of divine love rules, where chains are broken, where the poor are filled with good things, where cycles of violence give way to peace, and where everyone is loved, valued and empowered. Jesus was not God, he was not a ‘sacrifice’ for our sins; he was a wise man, a teacher, mystic and revolutionary, who was filled and embraced by this Christ-Spirit, and who taught his followers how to embrace it, live in it, share it, and build a new world. They killed him because embracing this Spirit led to conflict with the rich, the powerful and the religious. The kingdom of God overthrows every form of oppression. This a wonderful, glorious thing – and I know it is real because I have seen it and experienced it.
Now that, I think, is Good News worth living, enjoying and sharing.